Bhutan economy boost brings a rising waste problem

Despite its tiny population, Bhutan's economic growth has led to increasing urbanisation and problems associated with waste, which threatens the beauty of one of the most pristine environments in the world
<p>Non-biodegradable waste is becoming a problem in Bhutan (Image: Dave G. Houser/Alamy)</p>

Non-biodegradable waste is becoming a problem in Bhutan (Image: Dave G. Houser/Alamy)

Bhutan’s rapid economic development over the last few decades has been striking. According to World Bank data the GDP of the country grew from USD 135 million in 1980 to USD 2.2 billion in 2016, or sixteen times. Based on its indicators, Bhutan has been recommended for graduation from Least Developed Country status by the UN.

While this is good news for the country, it is also accompanied by some negative indicators.

The National Environment Commission’s (NEC) report “Bhutan State of Environment, 2016” has pointed out that, with rapid socio-economic development, increasing population and urbanization, the country is seeing an increase in the amount of solid waste generated. More problematically the composition of that waste is shifting from biodegradable to non-biodegradable waste.

Bhutan citizens launching clean-up campaign
As trash has started to mar the environment citizens have launched clean-up campaigns [image by: Clean Bhutan]
Nedup Tshering, a retired civil servant and environmentalist who started a civil society organisation based in Thimphu, Clean Bhutan, said compared to other countries, waste in Bhutan is not a huge problem. However, it is growing rapidly, and within since 2014, when Tshering started his initiative, the waste produced by individual household has doubled from 250 grams a day per person to almost half a kilogramme per person now.

Bhutan development

Disposable diapers are becoming a growing concern across the country. More people have started to use them and they do not degrade well even in landfills, stated the NEC report. Another issue of concern is that municipal solid waste also contains hazardous and electronic waste. Some examples of hazardous household waste are batteries, household cleaning products, cosmetics, automobile maintenance products and electronics such as phone, television sets, bulbs, and tube-lights.

With development and modernisation, there is growing trend of people discarding electronics. Phones, laptops and TVs are being exchanged for newer models, growing the amount of e-waste.

Bhutan volunteers collecting waste
The amount of waste gathered by volunteers is both impressive and saddening [image by: Clean Bhutan]
In 2017, the Global Waterkeeper Alliance and Clean Bhutan launched a water quality monitoring programme and found that key rivers in Bhutan contained significant levels of E.Coli bacteria.

One of the major problems with the problem specifically to Bhutan’s capital is that the sewer system connects directly into the river.  The leachate (the black water) from the wasteland fields in Memelakha also falls down into the Olarongchu river that connects to it. “If we don’t control this today in a decade or so, we will find Olarongchu quite toxic,” said Tshering.

Water quality test being conducted in river
The Global Waterkeeper Alliance and Clean Bhutan conducted water quality test in Bhutan’s rivers and found e coli [image by: Clean Bhutan]
The National Environment Commission said that their surveys and monitoring indicate that Bhutan’s water resources are healthy at the macro level, but there is an increasing concern that population growth, burial customs, and fast urbanisations are outpacing the installation of sewerage treatment and solid waste collection. This is threatening the water quality in downstream areas

Changing habits

Tshering explains that part of what is needed is changing customs. People throwing waste into rivers is not a new thing, but as Bhutan has grown more prosperous and the urban areas have enlarged, the type and amount of waste have changed. There is far more plastic and other non-biodegradable waste. People have started changing their habits, with more segregation of waste, but the facilities to manage the waste is still catching up.

So far Clean Bhutan has conducted 115 cleaning campaigns in towns and villages around 16 districts involving 4,431 volunteers, and 20 clean-up programs. These took place along the four rivers of Thimphu-chu, Paro-chu, Punakha-chu (Po-chu/Mochu) and Chubachu stream in Thimphu. (“Chu” means water in Dzongkha, and many rivers are named after a prominent place with the chu suffix added.) It has also conducted 44 such clean-up campaigns along trail and trek routes.

Plastic accumulating in forest
Until recently such concentrations of trash were a rarity in Bhutan, but as more people use plastic, much of it ends up in rivers or forests [image by: Clean Bhutan]

Buhtan’s city problems

But the problem is growing ever larger as the municipal services struggle to catch up. Tshering said that until a few years ago the trash was mostly found in the towns. Now it is also found in the jungle and rivers. The periphery of Thimphu is full of solid waste, which he attributes to the lack of facilities provided to people.

The NEC envisaged that by 2020, half of the Bhutanese population will live in urban areas. The two urban centres of Thimphu and Phuentsholing exhibit a complexity of environmental and social issues. One of these includes the problem of municipal wastes. This growth is enormous, considering that Thimphu was a small hamlet in the 1960s before it was declared the capital of the country. It is now the most populous city in the country, with Phuentsholing, a border town in the south, close behind

“At this rate, the issue of solid waste management and associated environmental and social problems will be more pronounced in the absence of a proper solid waste management system,” said the NEC report.

Thimpu and Phentsholing

According to Thimphu City Cooperation, less than 15% of total households in the city connect to the sewer system.  The rest rely on individual septic tanks. Between June 2010 to December 2012, 2,410 trips of vacuum tanker was used to empty 7,240 cubic metres of sewage. Domestic sewage, uncontrolled seepage, or overflows from septic tanks are some of the main sources of water pollution.

Additionally, in places like Thimphu and Phuentsholing where there are large concentrations of automobile workshops, the discharge of waste oil and other effluents is a significant source of water pollution.

Yeshey Wangdi, Chief Environment Officer with Thimphu thromde (municipal authority) said that the solid waste in Thimphu is growing along with the growth of the population of the city. As per the 2005 census, Thimphu’s population was 95,000. This is expected to have increased to more than 150,000. “Waste generation is directly dependent on population,” Wangdi said.


Since 2014 the municipal authority has outsourced the collection and disposal of waste to two private companies for. The two companies have to collect waste three times a week from every household. However, the thromde has been receiving many complaints from public that the waste collection is not happening on time. This he attributed to the breakdown of waste collection trucks or mismatch of collection timing with officer goers.

Another challenge is that unlike other countries every building has both commercial and residential functions. The collection services struggle to figure out when to send people where, whether during office hours, or not.

Residents collecting waste on river banks in Bhutan
People have traditionally disposed of trash in the river, but those were small communities, and the trash was biodegradable [image by: Clean Bhutan]
He said despite various problems, the department is committing to convert the waste problem into an opportunity. “Our present motto is reducing, reuse and recycle,” he said. Wangdi said the composition of the waste was 50% organic, 17% paper, and 12% plastic. Therefore, the focus thromde’s focus is to “make trash into cash.”

Rules and regulations

Environmental officials also pointed that the problem is not just with the waste, but failure to implement the rules. A few years ago Thimphu thromde passed a rule requiring people to pay a fine if caught throwing waste in places other than disposal areas. In practice this rule seems totally nonexistent.

Yeshey Wangdi said that the rule is being implemented and that there were several cases reported to the city. In the first instance the thromde asks people to pay the fine. If they do not, the case is forwarded to court. However, no case has so far been reported to court.

Environmentalists said that there are at least nine Acts that are directly or partially related to solid waste management. However, implementing and collaborating agencies and stakeholders are facing resource challenges. As Bhutan continues on its growth story, these gaps will also continue to grow. We will see bigger and bigger challenge to clean up in a country which had, until recently, a pristine environment.